For years, research into cannabis’ effects has focused on the cannabinoid THC. As most people know, this is what causes a “high,” although scientists still aren’t sure precisely how that happens. Studies have also shown that THC stimulates appetite, relieves pain and nausea, and (despite media stereotypes to the contrary) prevents neurological degeneration.
However, we now know that THC (short for Delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol), is not the only psychoactive compound in cannabis. There is also Delta 8, which is chemically similar to classic THC but with some unique benefits. Because Delta 8 occurs in mere traces in cannabis, it must be chemically altered from its isomer, CBD. Read on to learn how Delta 8 is extracted from industrial hemp or from THC itself.
Delta 8’s Relationship to Other Cannabinoids
To explore how Delta 8 is extracted, we must first understand cannabinoid chemistry. Don’t worry, we won’t get too technical! Essentially, all 144 cannabinoids are derived from Cannabigerolic Acid (CBGA), also known as the “mother of all cannabinoids.” As plants age, CBGA undergoes various biological processes and eventually becomes Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid (THCA) and Cannabidiolic Acid (CBDA). When the plant becomes heated (such as by being smoked), the acidic carboxyl group (COOH) drops off, resulting in THC and CBD, respectively. These molecules then go on to interface with our endocannabinoid system’s CB1 and CB2 receptors.
Of course, THC and CBD are only two cannabinoids. As the plant is exposed to heat and sunlight, these compounds undergo further chemical changes. CBD eventually converts into Cannabielsoin (CBE), while THC may lose electrons to become CBN (cannabinol, a milder psychoactive compound).
However, older THC may also degrade into Delta 8, which simply means that the double carbon bond is on the 8th atom in its carbon chain rather than the 9th. This small but important difference alters how the cannabinoid interacts with our body’s receptors.
So, we could extract Delta 8 from cannabis flower, but there are two problems with that approach:
- The percentage of Delta 8 in any given cannabis is still very small, so the only way to obtain it in pure form from bud is through a highly refined distillation process. Such Delta 8 THC products are often very expensive and rare for that reason.
- Plants that have been exposed to sufficient heat and light to contain enough Delta 8 THC also contain much more than the federal limit of 0.3% Delta 9 THC.
The more popular method to obtain Delta 8, then, is to hack its sister cannabinoid, CBD, which occurs in legal industrial hemp.
Fun with Flower Chemistry: CBD and Delta 8 THC
As mentioned, all cannabinoids derive from the “mother cannabinoid,” CBGA. An adult hemp plant typically contains 12 to 18% CBD and must contain less than 0.3%. CBD is actually very similar to Delta 8 THC. They are isomers, which means they have the same molecular formula (e.g. H2O) but distinct configurations of atoms. Believe it or not, that change in structure makes the difference between psychoactive and non-psychoactive!
CBD’s molecular formula is C21H30O2 (21 carbon atoms, 30 oxygen atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms). The structure contains three methyl groups (CH3) and one methylene group (CH2). The carbon chain also has two hydroxyl groups (OH). The latter are relatively unstable molecules. Many biological processes involve the exchange of hydroxyl groups. They also are prone to losing their hydrogen atoms.
That’s exactly what happens with the conversion to Delta 8 THC. Its formula is also C21H30O2, but instead of three methyl groups, it has four. The oxygen atom stays in place, but the hydrogen atom goes to join that lone methylene group. This slight shuffling leads to the double carbon bond being on the 8th link in the chain instead of the 9th — and that’s enough to slightly alter Delta 8’s effects!
To trigger this conversion, you dissolve CBD isolate in a solvent such as toluene. Then, add your catalyst: an acid such as pTSA monohydrate or glacial acetic acid. Within a few hours, that acid makes those hydrogen atoms jump around. After a few days, your CBD solution is now predominantly THC.
Another method is to boil CBD isolate in pure ethanol. The combination of heat and exposure to hydroxyl-rich alcohol also causes CBD’s molecules to do the shuffle.
In either method (and these are very general descriptions, not lab instructions!), the resulting solution is then extracted with ether, washed with water and sodium formulations, then evaporated into an oil.
Both cannabis engineers and scientists have explored multiple ways to extract Delta 8 THC from industrial hemp, simply by triggering this natural chemical conversion. Note: Don’t try these methods at home! They require a lot of specialized equipment, hazardous chemicals, and precise measurement to get right. Improper mixtures and certain solvents and acids can leave harmful residues — or blow up in your face. Always source your Delta 8 THC from a reputable vendor that uses legitimate labs to perform the extractions.
Why Use Delta 8 THC?
While Delta 8 THC will emerge in cannabis plants over time, it’s usually part of a synergistic effect among all the flower’s wonderful cannabinoids. That is, unless plants with more than 0.3% Delta 9 THC are illegal in your state (which is most). Obviously, many people want to try Delta 8 THC as a way to “legally” get high and enjoy THC’s various benefits.
When Delta 8 THC is extracted from hemp, it’s being derived from a plant that is legal — although the jury is still out on that regard. A full exploration of Delta 8 THC’s legality issues is beyond the scope of this article.
The main thing to know is that different sourcing methods majorly affect the cost of Delta 8 THC. Getting a sufficient amount to create consumable products is expensive. There are less expensive ways to do it, just as there are plenty of cheap CBD products created by pouring solvents over hemp. Unfortunately, the effects are rarely as potent. Worse, cutting corners in the lab leads to nasty byproducts. So again, always source your Delta 8 THC cartridges from a reputable vendor — and be prepared to invest a bit of dough.
If you’re looking at Delta 8 THC as a source of a mellower high and more restful sleep, you’re headed in the right direction. However, because there are dozens of extraction methods and other wildcards at play, you cannot always predict how Delta 8 THC will affect you. Some products may seem quite similar to Delta 9’s effects. The amount you take and your unique metabolism are also key factors. Unfortunately, research on Delta 8 THC is still pretty light, so it’s harder to give clear guidance. Our advice: order from a reputable vendor and start with a small dose.
Cannabis plants have a fascinating biochemistry that yields a wide variety of cannabinoids, each with distinctive effects on the human body. While Delta 8 THC is chemically similar to both CBD and classic Delta 9 THC, it is harder to obtain. However, its potential for insomnia treatment, its gentler euphoria, and its (possibly) legal status make it enticing for those who wish to enjoy THC’s effects while Delta 9 remains federally illegal.
If you want to try Delta 8 THC, remember that it is almost always chemically converted from CBD. These processes are expensive, but the products are worth the costs if Delta 9 THC is not legal in your area or if you seek Delta 8’s mellower effects. (Quick note: Delta 8 THC is actually banned in some states even if Delta 9 is not. Always check your local laws!)
In any case, Delta 8 THC’s creation is yet another sign of the exciting research happening in the world of cannabis.